sistaff
Friday September 30th, 2011

At the end of the day, tennis is a sport and sport is about competition. The gladiatorial battle between two players armed with nothing more than a racket and two cans of balls should be enough to keep any fan entertained. The level of tennis being played by the pros these days is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

But there are a small group of players who seem to be able to elevate the game beyond just the competition. They are players who, regardless of the stakes, can whip a crowd into a frenzy and create an unforgettable moment. They have displayed time and time again that if you spend a couple of hours with them, they will endeavor to show you something you have never seen before.

Here are five players you just have to watch regardless of who they're playing, where they're playing or when they're playing.

1. Alexandr Dolgopolov

It doesn't get more unorthodox than the man they call "The Dog." From his quick-fire service motion to his almost two-handed slice backhand, his game looks different from anyone else's on Tour. He combines imaginative shot making with the courage (stupidity?) to try to pull off ridiculous shots when he sees an opening. When it works, his game is a revelation, as it was when he shocked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling at the Australian Open this year. When it doesn't work, he tends to get overpowered and runs himself out of the match by going for too much.

But his game is so interesting to watch regardless of whether he's winning or losing. You know you bring something new and unique to the game when the media plan their viewing schedules around where you land in the order of play. Dolgopolov has that back-room buzz. Even those who have been around the game for years line up to watch him.

2. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Tsonga uses his athleticism, but, unlike the other Frenchman on the list, he doesn't flaunt it. And he still does it all with that French flair that is so endearing coming from a quiet guy who's built like a running back.

Everyone was forced to take notice when he demolished Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 2008, flashing a game that was equal parts power, speed and touch. Want to see a leaping smash? Jo's your man. Want to see some touch? How about a tweener-drop. Want to see him do a little jig to try to distract Roger Federer? Been there.

The soft-spoken Frenchman loves the crowd and he thrives on the stage as an underdog (his two wins over Federer this year attest to that). Granted, you never know which Tsonga will show up on any given day. When he gets distracted and starts wallowing in negativity, it can all be about as entertaining as a train wreck. But like Dolgopolov (though for different reasons), Tsonga's game -- an explosive mix of size, speed and agility -- just looks and sounds different from everyone else's.

3. Gael Monfils

No men's player drives fans and commentators as crazy as Monfils, who is deep on talent, high on entertainment value and, relative to his gifts, short on results. No one seems to know what to do with him. Do we just sit back and enjoy the show, accepting that he could implode at any second? Or do we get frustrated with his questionable strategy, spells of just pushing the ball back to his opponent and penchant for eschewing the smart play for the highlight-reel shot?

The needle on the Monfils-o-meter swings wildly between love and hate. And, let's face it, where the needle falls depends on where the ball lands. The Frenchman's athleticism and unabashed desire to entertain allow him the freedom to attempt the most audacious shots regardless of cost or consequence. He will throw in flashes of athleticism that range from unnecessary to ill-advised, and despite knowing that a particular shot was just foolish, we still jump up out of our seats and applaud. Because regardless of whether it is "smart tennis" or even "good tennis," it is entertaining tennis.

4. Francesca Schiavone

Despite being a Grand Slam champion, Schiavone navigates tournaments under a startling cloud of anonymity. I've watched her practice and sat courtside for her matches and I'm always surprised by how many people have no idea who she is. Her matches aren't particularly well-attended and those who are in the stands are not all that invested in the action. But -- and this has happened at every Schiavone match I have attended -- there comes a point when the crowd is forced to sit up and take notice. She has an amazing ability to pull you into her matches and before you know it, you've become the world's biggest Schiavone fan, rummaging through your bag to find enough Sharpies to draw an Italian flag on your cheek.

How does she do it? By being smarter and braver than the woman across the net from her. Schiavone will never wow you with her power and she's never going to hit her opponents off the court. But she will grit her teeth, she will fight and she will find a way to win. While many players can be accused of underachieving, Schiavone is the epitome of an overachiever. She makes use of everything she has, and when that isn't enough, she fills the gap with sweat, heart and guts. It's as inspiring as it is entertaining.

Oh, and she can hit a tweener. No big deal.

5. Novak Djokovic

It feels like a cop-out to put the best player in the world on this list, but the fact is that Djokovic is not only a tremendous player but he's also an entertainer. That's what got him into trouble earlier in his career but now it's the thing that sets him apart. While the other top players on both Tours seem to close down during matches and block out the crowd, Djokovic invites you in. As a fan, rooting for a player is great, but when you feel like your energy and your cheers are being heard and are even, dare we say, needed, it takes the viewing experience to an entirely different level.

Djokovic doesn't shut out fans and pretend that he's simply there for their viewing pleasure. He gets pumped up and screams and waves his arms to get the crowd into it. And in doing so, he elevates the act of watching tennis from one of passivity to one of interactivity. When you combine that level of awareness and showmanship with the athletic ability to pull off some of the most technically ridiculous shots, Djokovic matches become events that are simply fun. Isn't that all we're asking for?

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